by Sonia Arora
In those days there were no bright digital numbers, blue against black, assuring you had found the right place. You’d turn the dial and find the radio station, sometimes jiggling to avoid static, cobwebs of sound muffling the tune, until you found just the right spot and heard U2, Prince, or some other idol of your liking. You’d hear such artists in the grocery store and at work, and so you imbibed the songs of the 80s, and they stayed in your bloodstream long after, even if you chose not to seek them out at live concerts.
Maybe I was counter-culture; maybe I was queer. This Yonkers girl, having lived in both Punjab and New York, found succor in the devotional music of kirtan, mystic poetry set to a harmonium, like a piano with a pump, and tabla, like bongo drums. Not something I could often find on the airwaves. Devotional music was the hum under my breath as I traversed the world of public high school delving and questioning American Literature, European history, biology, trigonometry, and so much more
Kirtan caught me like unspooled thread. I latched onto Punjabi poetry about finding the beloved. It echoed the language of my grandparents, who were slowly slipping away from my life. My grandfather died when I was sixteen, prompting family members in Ludhiana to quarrel about property and inheritance. My family was disintegrating. The music, the poetry, remained. In them, I found shelter. As I took the 20 bus down Central Avenue to high school, I tapped my knee to the rhythms of kirtan, dhun dhanakadin dhun, as if home could be eternal in the wavelength of sound or in the Punjabi hymns of shabad. I searched for the outdoor bazaars of Ludhiana pink carrots and mooli (radish), among strip malls and the Yonkers Raceway.